Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Cookbooks, briefly

Exhausted. Today was a double whammy. Braces "adjusted". Who invented brackets? Chains? (yes, chains!)
And then the assistant says sweetly: you might want a little Advil later on.

Advil? Try Tylenol with Coedine. And make mine soup, please.

It'll be better tomorrow.

My coworker returned to work today after spending time arranging her cousin's funeral. She is a mess, which is entirely understandable, and only in the office to explain her work sufficiently so I can temporarily take over. What amazed me was everyone else--they all acted like nothing happened. She's sitting in her chair cycling through moods like Sylvia Plath and they're all babbling about soccer. I mean, I don't expect them to fall all over her--they've been quite nice--but take the commentary about soccer player physiques elsewhere? Do you notice her sobbing?

Okay. I'm done. Thank you for reading.

Cookbboks. Briefly, before I lie on the couch like a brainless fool.

I was pretty dismissive of Goose Fat and Garlic a few posts back. I was mistaken. The book, by one Jeanne Strang, is a fine examination of Southerwestern French cooking. It also gives an excellent agricultural history of the region. The only odd thing about the book is the complete lack o' quack. Where you are virtually wallowing in the stuff in Paula Wolfert, Jeanne Strang sticks to all manner of pork and lots of goose. Goose fat is not readily available even here, in the land of Bay Area Foodism. As for geese themselves, I checked out the frozen selection at Andronico's and nearly fainted in the aisle. Fifty-four bucks for an inorganic goose. And I thought making duck confit was a pricey venture.

I can't say I'd rush to make recipes from Goose Fat, but I'm still glad to have it.

Next up is Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen. I am 3/4 of the way through the book--I read cookbooks through, like novels--and have mixed feelings about it. Most importantly, I want to, and will, cook from it. Being a Detroiter, I came to Mexican cuisine late in life and didn't appreciate it until I was around twenty-six. Bayless's recipes are clear if repetitive, aimed at your average cook. My primary complaint is the book is badly written. The headnotes and longer explanations have some clunky metaphors:

"If it's true the earth 'Laughs in flowers,' as Emerson said, then I'd have to say that eating these giggles can make you giddy." (140)

A combination of vegetables leaves a dish "sing in harmony." (182) A tortilla casserole has "a lilting texture." (208)

Oy. Well, Bayless isn't a writer, he's a chef, and a fine one. My point isn't to make fun of him. In fact, he comes across as such a sensitive fellow (he thanks his therapist in the acknowledgements) that I'm afraid to. But this cookbook is a Maria Guarneschelli/Doe Coover production. Never heard of Maria G.? Open the 1997 Joy. As for Doe Coover, she is THE agent of cookbook writers everywhere. These ladies know food, and they know language. The book could be smoother, and I think both women must have known that. But they also knew the book would sell to those who watched Mexico One Plate at a Time, a show I never knew existed until I picked this up.

A final note...nearly every recipe in the book calls for fresh tomato. I undertand it's part of Mexican cuisine, but Bayless cooks in Chicago. It's nearly November. Where is he getting fresh tomatoes? Is he heedlessly getting them shipped (entirely his perogative...)? Have a hydroponic garden behind La Frontera? Seasonal Berkeley-type minds want to know!

Rick Bayless: Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen, with Deann Groen Bayless and Jean Marie Brownson. New York: Scribner, 1996.

Jeanne Strang: Goose Fat and Garlic. England: Kyle Cathie Limited, 1993.

Authors, Cookbooks

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Friday escape to Pegasus

On my work lunch hour....I ducked out of the monthly potluck, claiming mysterious "errands." People were not happy with me.

I will never understand work functions like potlucks. You work eight or nine hours daily with the same people, day after day. Then it's the sign-up list, the whispering that such-and-such only brings desserts, or that one never cooks anything, just buys cheese from the deli. There's invariably one person who adores potlucks and brings an elaborate dish, prepared lovingly at 4 a.m. Then lunchtime finally arrives, a schizoid spread complete with a bottle of wine that nobody will have the guts to open and pour.

I know--luncheons and parties are supposed to promote morale. I personally can think of many morale-boosters unrelated to group feeding. I'm certain you can, too. One of them is....

visiting the bookshop!

I went to Pegasus, where I wandered around blissfully. Going to bookstores is calming. It's quiet. The patrons are like you: people who love to read. The non-readers are across the street at Barnes and Noble, buying glossy garbage. The serious folk are peering sideways into the rows of used titles, then the new fiction, the new-nonfiction, the memiors. I save the cookbooks for last on lunch-hour visits as they can suck up all my time.

This week's grabs:

Lydia Davis: Samuel Johnson is Indignant.

In hardcover, used. The sort of book that makes you wonder about the seller. Did he/she hate Lydia Davis? Move to a smaller place and need the space? Die, and leave a terrific collection to be sold off by a reader of Chicken Soup drivel?

Paula Fox: Desperate Characters.

I am old enough to remember Paula Fox's young adult books. The Slave Dancer was a biggie when I was a kid....this was well before the phenomenon known as Courtney Love, who is Fox's granddaughter.

More importantly, Desperate Characters was one of those books I kept reading about from other authors I admired, most recently Francine Prose, in Reading Like a Writer. Add to the pile.

Finally, most expensively, and without, so far as I have read, a word of fanfare, an Everyman's Library Edition of Joan Didion's We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live. This gorgeous edition of the Great Joan's collected nonfiction is 1122 pages long, inset with two fabic bookmarks (surely there is a name for these?), and will set you back $30. Maybe if the NYTBR weren't spending so much time deciding whether or not they like the new Richard Ford, they could write a line or two about this?

The handsome guy at the checkout sighed admiringly. "Lydia," He smiled. "Lydia, Lydia, Lydia." We talked about her latest, The Thin Place, which had recevied so little promotion he had not heard of it, her MacArthur Genius Grant, the dearth of serious readers. He brought up Mitch Albom. Not me (really!). Of course I was game for the discussion.

I left smiling, eighty dollars lighter, immeasurably word-enriched.

Back at the office everyone sighed over what I'd missed. Brownies! Ice cream!

Errands, I said. So sorry.

Authors, Books

Saturday, October 28, 2006

One Good Turn: Schillinger, Bk, and Ed weigh in

Liesl Schillinger reviews Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn here, and I agree with nearly everything she says, save her dislike of character Gloria Hatter, wife of nasty housing developer Graham Hatter. More on that later.

One Good Turn opens with a road rage incident, artfully spiraling outward to include the corrupt builders of Hatter Homes, the thriving Russian sex trade, Martin Canning, a nebbishy, woeful writer of bad mysteries, and Case Histories detective Jackson Brodie. Along for the ride are Julia Land, Jackson’s lover, policewoman Louise Monroe, Louise’s son, Archie, and a host of other characters, all of whom have roles to play in the book’s realization. Atkinson is like Doestoyevsky—pay attention to that cart driver on page twelve. He won’t reappear until page three hundred forty, when he’ll have done or said something essential to the plot.

Schillinger writes “It’s difficult, as you survey her lineup of flawed everyday people, to decide which of them is more reprehensible (character being graded on a curve).”

This is where we diverge; Gloria, it must be admitted, has lousy taste, spending her husband’s ill-gotten funds on Staffordshire animals, acquired via e-bay auction, and paintings featuring baskets of kittens. She detests rule breakers and “line-jumpers”, wishing them dead (who amongst us hasn’t felt this way?). Gloria longs to do good in the world, albeit in an English, let’s-get-ahead-with-it-in-my-way manner. Wrenching flashbacks of her husband and father-in-law drowning a nest of kittens in their shop yard and Christmases past, where lovingly prepared meals are met with scorn, give ballast to her motivations. Gloria's final actions, without giving away the ending, spring from generous impulse.

Louise, the policewoman assigned to the case, prides herself on being tough. We first meet her sourly contemplating her mother’s ashes, wondering about maternal love. Like Gloria, her primary affection is focused on cats, specifically the aged, dying Jellybean, though, she worries inordinately over her child, the adolescent, mumbling Archie.

Louise, Gloria, and Tatiana, (Graham's Russian mistress and an employee of the myserious Favors agency) are wry, wordly-wise, nearly unflappable. When Gloria and Tatiana meet in the hospital (where Graham lies comatose), their exchange is darkly, wildly funny:

“He likes to be submissive,” Tatiana yawned. “Powerful men, they’re all the same...Idyots.” (78)

A little later, “Gloria divided the money from the ATM between herself and Tatiana. They had, after all, both earned Graham’s money in their own ways. In the seventies, women had marched for 'Wages for housework.’ Wages for sex seemed to make more sense. Housework had to be done whether you liked it or not, but sex was optional.” (81)

Julia Land, Jackson Brodie’s lover, inhabits the other side of the fence, flirting her way through life, “acting” in third-rate plays, brushing off Jackson’s marriage proposals. I’ve yet to read a review that finds Julia as annoying as her sister Amelia did in Case Histories, or for that matter, what about Julia ever appealed to a sober fellow like Jackson. He does come to his senses—he is nothing if not practical—and I'm not giving anything away in saying that as One Good Turn winds itself to a conclusion, Jakcson and Julia's incongruous liaison unravels.

Schillinger comments aptly on Atkinson’s use of technology to delineate character. No more proverbial detectives with magnifying glasses. Everyone, these days, is watching CSI. Thus cellphones and palm pilots, laptops (as weapons!) and memory sticks. Atkinson has fun with poular culture; Jackson still loves the sad ladies of American country music. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, with its bad plays and rude audiences, is send-up of every cultural festival ever endured. Martin Canning’s appearance on a mystery writers panel, complete with rude co-authors and an American writer called Betty-Mae, is hilariously mocking; one envisions Atkinson giggling happily as she typed.

All in all, a fine leap from the genre.

For additional commentary on Liesl Schillinger, check out Ed Champion’s comments here.

Authors, Book Reviews

Green Acres

For my next installment in the farm box glut chronicles, greens. The Bay Area being the house that Alice Waters built, we receive all kinds: beets with their tops attached, turnips, ditto, Dinosaur or Lacinato Kale, Green Kale, Bok Choy, and spinach. Bags and bags of dripping wet mesclun. Muddy mixed lettuces. We’ll get these for months, until seasonal eating makes us want to scream or run out and buy seven dollar Dutch tomatoes.

Lacinato is tough stuff; it’ll hold in the fridge for several days. Not so the others, which wilt seemingly the moment I get them into the house. So I cook them, quickly, and eat later.

A word about cleaning greens: the salad spinner does not cut it. You end up with damp, sandy, crushed leaves and a dirty spinner.

My method is to fill a large bowl with cool water and swish the greens about until the grit settles on the bottom. Dry as best you can with paper towels, or if you are an environmental type, cotton dishcloths.

I learned a neat cutting technique from chef Jessica Prentice: if your greens are bound by a rubber band, leave it on. Roll the leaves tightly, then slice into ribbons until you reach the bound stem end. Angling your knife away from the stems, trim the remaining bits of greenery. You now have all your greens and slightly less mess; I find it impossible not to get green water and shreds of veggie everywhere.

Now, to cooking.

Most of the time I toss the greens into a saute pan with olive oil and white wine. A couple cloves of garlic. Variations on this theme include shallots, chicken broth, cayenne pepper, butter, smoked bacon, or ham.

After eighty-five times or so this preparation gets a bit tired. Turning to my cookbooks for inspiration, I found Swiss Chard with Olives and Raisins in the Gourmet Cookbook. I am on the record as loathing fruit or sweet spices with savory food. This recipe is no exception. For the original recipe, calling for ¼ cup golden raisins, consult page 542 of the Gourmet Cookbook.

The other ingredients:

Olive oil
8 Kalamata olives (why Gourmet arrived at 8 I’ll never know. I threw in a handful.)
a bunch o’ chard. (in my case, spinach and mixed greens)
¼ c toasted pine nuts..

The original recipe calls for adding ingredients in a specific order; I heated the olive oil and garlic, added the greens, allowed them to cook down a few minutes, then dumped in everything else. Excellent. The pine nuts are the kicker, adding crunch to an otherwise mushy dish.

Hockeyman and I have also made gratins using greens and potatoes. To my amazement, I can’t find the recipe we used last year; we must have improvised. Whatever we did, I know we must have used Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone for rough guidelines.

Broadly speaking, then, I remember boiling potatoes in their jackets, then slicing them once they’d cooled. We layered them with chard leaves (here is an instance where you must wearily wash each leaf and leave it intact) in our 5 ½ quart Le Creuset braiser, which I’d rubbed with garlic and butter. Poured milk over the whole mess, grated some Parmigiano atop, and slid it into a 350 degree oven for forty-five minutes or so. I covered the pan for the first 30 minutes, then removed it so the top could brown.

You can also use cream or creme fraiche, should you have some. This is nice on a Sunday night with bread, and leaves you with yummy luncheon leftovers.

I also use greens in soup—turnip or squash—lending flavor and color.

A favorite meal is sauteed greens with baked sweet potatoes and pork chops. Something about the bitterness of the greens, combined with the sweetness of the starch and mild pork is immensely satisfying. This is a great meal for women who, to put it delicately, may otherwise be experiencing violent, weepy cravings for salt and sugar.

Finally, pasta, ye olde standby. Last night, a fresh farm box shedding everywhere, I trimmed the long leafy top from a daikon radish and set it in a bowl of cool water. Added a bunch of chard and some spinach leaves, as huge amounts of greens cook down to a teaspoonful. Minced a little garlic, heated olive oil in a saute pan. In went the greens. Put on the pasta water to boil, realized I had a little farfalle and a little rigatoni. Marcella Hazan does not know where I live, so I put them in together to cook.

I broke up the remaining Moussaka-adventure feta cheese into a bowl, then stirred everything together. If you want to gild the lily, grate some parmesan over everything. Then congratulate yourself on eating such healthy food.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

One more reason to vote Democratic

Former White House chef Walter Scheib III spoke with Marian Burros about the upcoming publication of "The White House Chef," a position Mr. Scheib held for eleven years, until Bush social secretary Lea Berman fired him. Ms. Berman sent Mr. Scheib menu suggestions from numerous magazines, including Martha Stewart Living. It was important the meals look "just like the picture."

Aside from Ms. Berman's stunning lack of sophisitcation regarding food, food styling, and what might be served to visiting heads of state, there was the small disconnect regarding precisely what to serve Dubya, who favored Scheib's grilled cheese sandwiches, composed of white bread and Kraft singles.

We have a president who, among zillions of other nefarious things, considers Kraft singles food. Yeah, I know, Bill Clinton loved junk food. I would point out that Bill Clinton loved ALL food, and until his heart surgery, ate lavishly. I would also point out that Chelsea and Hillary loved hummus, a food Ms. Berman penned "yuk" beside when it appeared on a menu.

Yuk. Our nation is led by a man eaing processed cheese product. His social secretary, whose husband, incidentally, contributed $300,000 to the Bush Campaign, assessed hummus, an actual foodstuff with a long and noble lineage, with a "yuk."

We are governed by narrow-minded idiots.

Jews eating treyfe, or why can't we all get along?

In the August literary supplement to Gourmet Magazine, writer David Rakoff contributed an essay entitled "Some Pig", an amusing, astute observation of what it means to be a pork-eating Jew. I read it with a mixture of laughter, and, I admit, jealousy. Had I not just posted "My Porcine Dalliances?" Mr. Rakoff was in Gourmet. I was just another disembodied voice in the blogosphere. Never mind. My ego recovered in time to receive the November issue of the magazine, replete with a perfect turkey adorning the cover.

Then I turned to the letters section, where I read Omi Cantor's outraged letter to the magazine. "It is most disturbing that you find it acceptable to publish such drivel.” He wrote. “You should both be ashamed."

Rakoff responded respectfully, if strongly, denying any intent to insult. He is, he says, proud to be part of the Jewish tradition of "spirited ideas and inquiry."

Having struggled myself with Judaism's role in my life, particularly as it relates to food, I must side with Rakoff. No matter how much treyfe I eat, with however much gusto, there is always a little voice yapping away in the back of my head. This is soo good....this is soo treyfe. Here I am, a proclaimed atheist, certain I am sinning. Just the other night, as I slid the milk/cheese topped moussaka into the oven, I thought to myself, this is really takeh treyfe. It'll probably give me indigestion. And I'll deserve it.

Mr. Cantor might be pleased by my lingering guilt. But what he would think of my Catholic husband? Of Mr. Rakoff's admitted homosexuality?

We Jews--observant or not--live in a time when anti-semitism is on the rise. There are groups out there who’d like to see the lot of us wiped off the earth. This is frighteningly reminiscent of a time not so long ago. We live with (beneath?) a government unable to react to hurricanes, terrorism on U.S. soil, lunatics in Seattle. We can’t afford to hate one another right now. Too many other people do, and our division is their strength.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Eggplant and tomato glut

I’d been writing about dealing with the farm box. Two people, faced with literally pounds of produce, are forced to get creative about cooking and eating everything before it all perishes. In this spirit, let us revisit eggplant.

We received three last Friday: a tiny white one, a long, slender purple eggplant that proved impossible to peel, and a large magenta globe weighing about a pound.

We also had what are likely the final tomatoes, smallish and rather mealy. I looked up Eggplant Parmigiana in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, then found myself paging through the Gourmet Cookbook. Moussaka presented itself. While Gourmet states “virtually everyone knows about Moussaka.” Neither Hockeyman nor I had ever tasted the stuff. So.....

Gourmet’s recipe, with BK notes.

9 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped (Hockeyman doesn’t like onions, so we used a shallot.)
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 ¼ lbs ground lamb. (We used one pound Niman ground beef.)
¼ tsp cinnamon (I omitted this)
¼ tsp allspice (ditto)
3 14 oz cans Italian Plum tomatoes, drained (We used our fresh tomatoes.)

I don’t like sweet spices in savory food. I used salt, black pepper, a pinch of cumin, and a pinch of cayenne.

1 ½ tsp dried mint (I detest mint. Omitted it.)
3 ½ lb medium eggplants, sliced

For the topping:

2 ½ tbs butter
3 ½ tbs all purpose flour
¼ lb feta, crumbled (Fresh. Not that stuff that comes in brine, please.)
1 large egg, beaten with one yolk
1/3 C grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

From here a huge amount of work ensues. You will use nearly every dish and pan in your kitchen whilst preparing a dish that gives pause even to the non-fat conscious amongst us.

I am going to edit here, rather than bore you with a long recipe. If you want to prepare this exactly as Gourmet does, see page 515 of the cookbook.

What we did:

Chopped the garlic and shallot until H-man wept.

Chopped up the tomatoes.

Put the above in a saute pan with olive oil. Allowed to cook. Added red wine, salt, pepper, cumin, cayenne. Added the beef and stirred to break up. Sprayed myself and floor with tomato sauce.

Browned eggplant on an oiled tray under the broiler. It looked rubbery and unappetizing, so I put it on the counter behind me, where I didn’t have to look at it while I prepared the topping.

I don’t ususally prepare roux-type toppings. They’re so essentially non-Jewish—all that milk and meat together. It could make a person sick, right? Never mind. I whisked my little wrist off so the flour wouldn’t clot, added my Organic Valley milk (a friend recently dubbed me “Organic Princess.” It was not a compliment.), then stirred in the feta. The roux got a little cranky and clumpy, so I took it off the heat, allowed it to cool, then added the egg.

Assembly time. Ugly eggplant on the bottom, meat/tomato sauce next, white sauce, then a final, heart-stopping sprinking of the Parmigiano. Put in 400 degree oven for half an hour. Watch Laurent Tourandel slay Bobby Flay on Iron Chef. Was there ever a clumsier chef than Flay? No! Are we happy Laurent made him look like the asshole klutz he is? Yes!

Eat Moussaka. Excellent, rather like lasagna with eggplant instead of pasta noodles. Give bowl to kitty, who eagerly polishes off juices.

This is how to eat your farm box glut.

In our next installment, acres of greens, sans e.coli or Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Ruth Reichel. The Gourmet Cookbook. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. p 515.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A man I'll never meet

If you are female and work with other women, soon enough you will come to know a great deal about one another's husbands, children, and extended family members. Even the most hostile officemates know this. Sex, money, drinking, divorces, the days you want to kill your children: we hear it all. More often than not, we empathize.

Men are less like this. I don't mean to broadly stereotype or speak unkindly of the male sex. But the differences between what my husband and I know about our co-workers are always remarkable. He never knows who is married, who has kids, whose son is struggling to read at grade level. Women know all that, and more.

Such are my relationships at work. I have mentioned the incredibly close quarters I share with three women. I like them all--thank God--and know plenty about their families. As they do about mine.

So it is I have come to know my colleague's cousin by marriage (identifying details have been changed). This young man grew up African-American with the proverbial deck stacked against him--single parent in trouble, too many siblings, no money, no place to live, no stability. Life was a series of welfare motels and hustling to ensure he and his younger sibings had something to eat.

Enter my colleague into his family, by marriage.

My colleague is a wonderful woman: intelligent, terrific sense of humor, charming. She has a gift for communicating with even the most difficult people. In a now-legendary moment, she offered one of the most uptight, egotistical faculty members a taste of her lunch, which he happily accepted. She welcomed "Ryan" into her extended family, offering him everything he so needed: a listening ear, financial help, encouragement, role models in the form of her and her husband. Ryan always had a meal at her table and a bed in her home. She offered him unconditional love, and he responded by getting off the streets, getting a job, and trying desperately to get his act together. I know: like the rest of her family, he called her at work a lot. So I knew about his new job in a very White city, where he worked long hours to earn cash. I knew about his girlfriend and his mom and his granny. He wanted to go back to school. He wanted to travel: he'd never been out of California.

My colleague shared with me the many casually cruel incidents that comprised Ryan's days: people crossing the street at the sight of his six-foot, dark-skinned personage. The woman in a car who locked her doors when she saw him walking nearby. The lack of acceptance in his new workplace. Two weeks ago he was hurt on the job and taken to the hospital. Despite severe injuries, they offered him only the crudest of care--he was uninsured--and sent him home. He called my colleague and asked for help. She called the hospital. She made demands and took names. She called him--six or so times a day. My morning greeting became "How's Ryan?" Not hello, hi, how are you. How's Ryan?

Finally he was well enough to return to the Bay Area. He called again at the office, sounding much better. He was relieved to be back in familiar territory, amongst family and friends. His mother knew a clinic that would tend his broken bones. He was going to take it easy with the family. Recover.

This morning my colleague arrived at work sniffling and sneezing. A bad cold, one that is being passed round my office. She was in a funk but called to check in with Ryan anyway. Had he been to the clinic? No answer on his cell.

Late in the afternoon she decided to go home and lie down. Her phone began ringing off the hook. I was irritated, pissed she'd come to work sick, and maybe given her cold to me. I had a headache. Now her phone wouldn't quit. Couldn't whoever it was leave a message?

The next volley of calls came to my supervisor's phone, which she was there to answer. Calm down, she said. I can't understand you. Are you driving? Pull over. Pull over NOW. Oh God. Oh Jesus. Oh no.

The calls were from the police, who, unable to find my colleague at the office, called her cell phone, reaching her on the freeway. They informed her that Ryan was shot and killed this afternoon.

He was twenty-one.

I did not know Ryan. I only knew of him. And what I knew of him I liked--his general good sense, his strength, his generousity to his siblings. I shared my coworker's hopes for him--that he would marry his girfriend, find rewarding work, settle into the domestic happiness he craved. Ryan worked so hard for such a small measure of happiness, and even that was denied him.

I have no answers. I can barely wrap my mind around the problem. I can only ache for my co-worker and her family, feel horror at the thought of Ryan's last moments.

And so, in a useless act, I lit a Yahzreit candle, a Jewish Memorial Candle one lights to honor the dead. I am honoring Ryan, whom I never met, and now never will.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Drink your coffee elsewhere

In today's New York Times, writer Susan Dominus schools us in the expanding "Starbucks Aesthetic." The chain is styling itself to become a "purveyor of premium-blend culture." Or, as Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz says: "...the opportunity to extend the brand is beyond coffee: it's entertainment."

Note the term "brand." The Starbucks brand is currently bringing you Mitch Albom's lastest, which you can read, then use as treacle in your coffee while listening to the Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, and Miles Davis mix CDs you bought while waiting for your low-fat mocha decaf. Notably, those CDs were the brainchild of Mr. Timothy Jones, who was forced to find work at Starbucks after his independent record store went out of business. Jones also championed singer Madeleine Peyroux. Funny, I heard her on the radio.

But back to Howard, who keeps talking about "the brand." "The trust we have with the brand." "The profile of our customers." That's over forty, educated, wealthy, and more than a little nervous about getting older, wealthier, and squarer (not that I identify or relate in any way.) Howard has hired Ms. Nikkole Denison to help create something called a "halo": connotations of good feeling, the sort of response I have, say, to hearing Aretha Franklin or Bob Seger. Starbucks' halo will give customers movies, books, and music furthering the Starbuckian notion of "community and inspiration." Media selected will be educational, "socially relevant," but "not racy or dark, but thought-provoking."

I guess they wouldn't like A Discerning Eye. Or The Year of Magical Thinking. How about Suite Francaise?

"There's the faintest whiff of discriminating good taste around everything Starbucks sells...." designed to "flatter the buyer's self-regard." Jesus, are people really that nervous about buying coffee cups? CDs? Books? Seems so. Literary agent Laurence Kirschbaum notes that apart from Oprah, "there's no really widely accepted authority to recommend to books."

Excuse me...Oprah? Who in hell made her final arbiter? Yep, lots of ladies watch her and hang on her every word. But Oprah is one person, with, excuse me for mentioning this, middling literary tastes. Elfriede Jellinek will never, ever appear on Oprah. Nor will Lydia Davis.

Why are people so nervous about making decisions? Thomas Hay tells Ms. Dominus that Starbucks "helped him by editing down his cultural choices." That Starbucks media sprang from "some people of caring hearts and minds who have looked at this and felt it was worthwhile and beneficial and would create a good vibe in the world."

Mr. Hay, that's exactly what Starbucks wants you to think. They want you to buy their books, their CDs, see their movies. Incidentally, buy their coffee, too. They want you to buy the lifestyle they're selling, cup by cup.

Here's what Starbucks doesn't want you to do: shop in independent bookstores. Shop in small record shops, like Mr. Jones'. See dark, racy movies with sad endings. Drink your coffee elsewhere.

Stop and wonder why a coffee shop--a coffee shop!--is turning into a media conglomerate that feeds off your insecurities.

Cooking out of the box: Squash

Some notes on contending with Summer's last gasp and Fall's glut.

1. Squash

Full Belly farm has come into squash harvest time. In the past month we have received Red Kuris, Delicata, and, last Friday, two massive Acorns.

We are but two humble eaters. And though winter squash keeps pretty well, organic produce does not have the indefinite fridge life of its chemical brethern. A few recipes to use up your squash:

Squash Bread

The past few weeks I've baked numerous loaves using Joy's of Cooking's pumpkin bread recipe as a jumping off point. The recipe can be found in the 1997 Joy, page 774. I find their spice-based quick breads to be bland and achingly sweet, so I decrease the sugar and increase the ginger, allspice, and cloves. I detest nutmeg, so omit it.

This recipe works with any cooked mashed squash.

Grease an 8 cup loaf pan with butter. Do not use Crisco. For anything. Ever. Even pie crust.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Whisk the following:

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour (King Arthur is great if you can get it)
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt

Here's where Joy and I part ways:

Joy: 1 tsp ground ginger BK: 2 tsp

Joy: 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg BK: none, instead one tsp Allspice

Joy: 1/4 tsp ground cloves BK: 1 tsp

Joy and BK: 1/4 tsp baking powder

Combine in another bowl:

1/3 C water or milk (I usually have only water, and it works fine)

1/2 tsp vanilla (my vanilla is a pod that lives in a bottle of brandy)

In a large bowl--I use my KitchenAid mixer--beat six tablespoons sweet butter until creamy.

Gradually add sugar. Again, Joy and I part ways here, so their version and mine:

Joy: 1 1/3 C white sugar or 1 C sugar plus 1/3 C packed brown sugar, light or dark.

BK: Scant C sugar, some white, mostly light brown.

Cream with butter until well mixed.

Beat in two large eggs.

Add 1 C squash puree, taking care to keep the strings out.

Add the flour and milk/water in three parts: flour, a little liquid, flour, more liquid. You get the idea.

Blend carefully, at low speed, to avoid getting pureed squash and flour all over your kitchen.

You can add raisins or nuts at this point, if you like those sorts of things. I don't.

Pour into the prepared pan and bake about an hour. In my oven I go about 65 minutes or have an underbaked top.

Let cool. You can now slice this, freeze it, and have a nice breakfast for you, a child, or your significant other all week long.

Hockeyman, who is not a breakfast eater, loves this bread. It has a velvety texture and keeps well.

That takes care of one cup of squash. What about the rest of it?

I find squash goes beautifully with pork. So with last week's pork butt a la crock pot, I took out the leftover Red Kuri and mashed it with a potato masher. I then ladled the liquid from the crock pot (the pork had cooked in tequila, a little olive oil, carrot, and garlic) into the squash, allowing the vegetable to asborb the juices. I added salt, pepper, a pinch of cumin, and a pinch of red pepper flakes. One down, pounds more to go.

Last night I dealt with the Delicatas. There were two, fortunately smallish. I made Delicata Squash Rings, from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. Basically, you peel and seed the squash, then saute it olive oil. I used butter. The sugars carmelize and you end up with a crispy exterior. These are easy, quick, and as addictive as french fries.

Soup, bread, mashed, fried. Two Acorns notwithstanding, I was out of ideas, and turned to the Gourmet Cookbook, where I found baked breaded Acorn Squash (p. 587) and a recipe for Pumpkin Apple bread (p. 599) that I intend to make this afternoon. The recipe calls for canned solid pack pumpkin; I am hoping my solid pack Acorn, freshly roasted and cooling, will make an admirable substitute.

Next post: acres of greens.

Works Cited:

Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker. The Joy of Cooking. New York: Scribner, 1997. 774.

Deborah Madison. Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. New York: Broadway Books, 1997. 440.

Ruth Reichel. The Gourmet Cookbook. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. pps

On Being a Reader

Have I mentioned this week how much I love the Critical Mass Blog? Of particular recent interest was this post on Terry Caeser's Article in Inside Higher Ed. Caeser laments the demise of spaces devoted to reading, to the technological rush of computers and text messaging and too many television monitors. Nobody, he feels, has any public place to read.

Dan Wickett, of Emerging Writers Network, politely called this bollocks. I politely concurred. Mr. Jerome Weeks politely noted we missed the point: that technology is taking over, and publishers are missing the boat.

I agree with Dan. I agree with Mr. Weeks. I had a harder time with Caeser's pleas, as they were aimed at the poor, suffering professors, hiding in their offices to read. As for adjunct faculty, now shouldering the teaching burden nationwide, well, God, they don't even have offices. In additon to high workloads and poor pay, they have nowhere to read. And what about the girl who flunked out because--you guessed it--she couldn't find a quiet spot to read?

I have mentioned I work at a major U.S. University. A really famous one. You've heard of it. I am not faculty of any sort, but lowly administration, and my office is a zoo. My "desk" is a stretch of countertop with a computer and a telephone. To write, I must move my keyboard up on the monitor tray. I sit within touching distance of two people. A third person is four feet away. The noise level ranges from relatively peaceful (at 8am) to so loud I must cover my free ear to hear telephone callers (9-4:30).

I have a lot of down time, which I spend reading. Concentration can be difficult, but if the material is engaging, I am completely able to tune out the marital spats, insane faculty, bored colleagues, and discussions of what to eat for lunch. A few weeks ago one of the senior staff, a person I cannot tell to fuck off, told me I was boring. Why? All I ever do, she noted, is read. "You're boring," she said. She actually said it a few times. I smiled at her, agreed that I am indeed dull, and returned to my book.


The world divides thousands of ways. One is those who must read and those who don't, with a few people like my husband thrown in for variety. My husband is always reading something, but he doesn't read like I do--with a sort of voracious desperation. He doesn't get anxious if the available supply of books runs low. He doesn't care about funky editions. He didn't leave his office to grab "The Year of Magical Thinking" the moment, literally, that Pegasus books unpacked the distributor's boxes. He wasn't upset when Lucy Grealy died.

It was me who did, who cared, who was born this way. I know few other people who feel as I do...and I don't even really know many of them. Dan Wickett is an internet acquaintance. We would pass one another in the street. I have no interest in getting to know Maud Newton or Jessa Crispin personally. Knowing they are out there, and love books--albeit different books than I do--is sufficient.

Are readers born or made? I would have to some of each: my mother was instrumental in passing on a love of reading. I remember her teaching me to read, using a book called Peter's Rainy Afternoon. She also subscribed to a club that sent a new Dr. Seuss monthly. I was a toddler, so she kept them on a high bedroom shelf. I remember the day I asked her to take them down so I could read them. I was three. Nixon was in office; young men were coming home maimed from Viet Nam. I read Hop on Pop.

I remember my mother buying me Little House on the Prairie, because she loved it as a child and thought I might, too. I did, and still do. When I began elementary school, I spent so much time in the library that the librarian came to know my tastes. She led me to Sydney Greenstreet's "All of a Kind Family" series, about a Jewish family on New York's Lower East Side. My fourth grade teacher took me to see Judy Blume speak, a thrill I will never forget.

If my teachers encouraged me, my classmates made fun. I preferred reading to socializing (Hell,I still do), and extensive time living in books gave me a vocabulary beyond my years. Kids made fun of my "scientific" words. I was not hurt. I thought them idiots.

This was all a long time ago. There were no computers or VCRs or even answering machines. Telephones had cords and plugged into the wall. The IBM Selectric Self Correct was a major deal. Japanese automakers were only beginning to destroy my hometown, the Detroit you can read about in Jeffrey's Eugenides "Middlesex."

People entertained themselves with television, music, movies at the cinema. They got together and yakked. Some read. Lots didn't.

I read my way through school, ignoring my classmates. I prayed college would be better, that I would be in the company of other readers. My family moved to California, where my peers had fallen victim to something called Whole Language Learning. Forget reading: these people could not sound out words, much less read them. My freshman English class found me with fifteen true illiterates. We were assigned The Dolphin Reader. We were to read an essay a week, then write a two page report on what we'd read. I did all of mine in one sitting, pecking away on my mother's IBM Selectric II, which had pride of place in our home. I lived in fear of breaking it.

I got an A in English.

I graduated with honors and went on to study for a Master's in English Litertaure, a horrible experience. Everybody was into lit crit and thought writing died with Melville. None of my classmates read beyond the assigned literature. They were too busy figuring out how to put a Feminst Marxist spin on Little Dorrit. I graduated with good grades but shredded sanity.

Now I have a job that has nothing to do with books. Nobody would notice if I never read another page.

Except me. I would lose my refuge, my education, my escape. I would stop learning about how other people think. How they live and love. What they wear and eat and what their politics are. I would no longer be able to explain the world to myself: the center would no longer hold.

I don't know if the advent of computers and the internet and cell phones and all the other available distractions is destroying serious reading. It seems likely. People have attention-span issues these days. ADHD is the newest scourge of childhood, and what is it but the inability to concentrate?

To every era, its disease.

I have no ready answers. No solutions. I think people will always read, just as there will always be people who study ballet or spend hours studying epilepsy in fruitflies (yes, people really do this). I think the big New York Publishing houses are going to drag their feet and hope the John Grishams of the word underwrite their refusal to modernize.

All the readers can do in the face of all this is keep reading. We don't need special spaces. Comfortable chairs or beds are always nice, as is adequate lighting, but many of us made do with dim flashlights as kids and suffer the equivalent now--no office, no desk, flourescent lighting. Blaring televisions and cell phone conversations we'd rather not hear. Reading is becoming a subversive act. Incredible. Me, nearly middle-aged, about as threatening-looking as a dachsund, engaging in subversion.


Reading, Books

Saturday, October 21, 2006

A Discerning Eye (Continued)

Tomorrow I fly to San Francisco. There is fear, which I do my best to ignore. I fold the green dress carefully. Underwear, socks, jeans, sweaters. Think about the future, the peace of working during the Spring rains. The Papa paintings and Daniel behind me. In the past. Healed over, healthy scar tissue, clean and pink.

The Valdivias have sent a car to the airport. From the back seat I stare out the smoked windows, fascinated. San Francisco is like nowhere else, the beautiful old buildings with their oxidized blue domes, the meticulously kept gilt medallions, stone and marble shoved up against contemporary glass boxes. Graffiti and street people and buses, jumbled in a crazy quilt of activity. There are more people on one city street than in all of Bluestem.

The wind whips through everything, skidding garbage down the sidewalks.

During my infrequent visits I sometimes fantasize about living here, what it might be like to be a part of such vitality. In the past I felt it would be too much stimulus, that my work might be negatively impacted. Now, teetering from portrait to landscape to empty rooms, still lifes seemingly lost, I wonder how much personal geography matters.

At the hotel there's an invitation for this evening, a dinner at the Valdivia's home. An Artist's Dinner, reads the embossed card. No thanks. I'll take a walk, eat something ethnic and impossible to find in Bluestem, watch hotel cable and go to sleep early.



Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Lead us not into temptation

as it differs from food porn.

Yesterday I bought the November issue of Food and Wine, a magazine whose subscription I've long let lapse. This is a magazine aimed less at serious cooks than wealthy folk who enjoy gastronomic travels. Recipe spreads often include either famous chefs, celebrities, or both, preparing foods that never strike me as especially appealing. (Crabmeat stuffed baby artichokes with creme fraiche sounds a little heavy. As an appetizer before the turkey, I'm running for the Maalox.) So why did I succumb to the bronzy turkey on the cover? Hell, I don't know. American consumerism, so stifled in my Berkeley-buy-it-local-fair-trade-organic-polemic self, reared its awful politically incorrect head.

I packed the glossy mag off to work with me, where I started with Dana Corwin's Editor's Letter:

"Thankgiving is the only holiday meal that my family eats together at home. We're really more of a restaurant tribe." (25) This from a food editor? Are readers to be reassured or horrified? Can Dana Corwin really cook? Never mind. Page along to News and Notes, where you may purchase aprons for $34, or, if you're feeling flush, $80. Note these aprons tie about the waist, offering no protection for the chest area.

My apron cost $7 at Ace Hardware. It's kinda stained because, well, I use it a lot. To cook. Next we find Keebler Town House Toppers, the perfect new cracker for entertaining. By now you are wondering if this is a magazine about cookery or things to buy that will make you look like a chic cook. Then come the travel articles: Texas eateries, Sydney, the Caribbean. An article about Jean-Georges Vongertichten going game bird shooting with a few chef buddies. A recipe for crunchy almond-crusted duck breast. If you can afford duck breast, why mess it up with almonds? An interview with Beth Arrowood, owner of housewares store NiBa Home. Beth is newly single, and has celebrated this fact by painting her apartment turquoise. Beth is also quite the party giver, but she's careful about guests bringing food. A terrible thing once befell her: "I asked someone to bring an appetizer and the person just went to a random grocery store and bought something premade. I can't stand that." (84) Beth, honey, we feel your pain. Bad appetizers are like nuclear bomb tests. They ruin your whole day.

An article on safe meats. Gotta have that pc angle. A kitchen spread using sustainable materials, available provided you are an heir to the Levi Strauss fortune. And ad from our friends at Teflon, reassuring us that DuPoint really does care about poisoning us, and will continue doing so.

But enough dilly-dallying--let's talk recipes. Side dishes for the turkey day table are pedestrian variations on an ancient themes....maple this, sausage that, more squash than a tournament. The way to deal with Thanksgiving veggies is to douse them in pig of some kind--bacon bits, more sausage. Heads-up, Niman Ranch--the pc baconers will be knocking on your door once they've grabbed their heritage birds.

The one article with some heft: New Era of the Recipe Burglar, to be addressed separately. Past that article, more product--fancy oils, truffle salt, a recipe for muscat and dried-fruit gravy. God help us.

The celebrity angle appears in the form of Marcus Sameulsson, he of Aquavit, serving dinner with art dealer friend Thelma Golden, resplendent in her Tracy Reese dress. The African menu, like so much of this magazine, is watered down to accomodate upper-class white palates. No foofoo, no pumpkin stew, no palm-oil based stews, no injera, no berbere. Instead of Ethiopian honey wine, a dangerously delicious, potent drink, we get Cranberry Caipirinha, a cocktail I'm certain the many Ethiopians in my neighborhood are imbibing this very moment.

I'm skipping here, passing over Barbara Lynch's first home Thanksgiving in her professional kitchen and the Good Housekeeping sweep of Chef Andrew Carmellini's recipes. We are told he makes Parpardelle with Lamb Ragu at his A Voce Restaurant, but in the spirit of quick n' easy, we get store-bought ground lamb and pasta and discard the lamb stock entirely for canned chicken broth. Gnocchi with wild mushrooms is modified with store bought pasta and more canned broth. I'm feeling very Rachael Ray. Maybe Food and Wine can pair up with her and we can order Yum-O! t-shirts with our magazine subscriptions.

Hey, I understand lamb broth and gnocchi aren't Tuesday night fare for many of us, but why bother writing about Carmellini's terrific recipes and then giving readers junk versions? What is the magazine after besides selling a ton of premade foodstuffs? The promulgation of guilt over inadequate parties? Getting that damned bird on the table, its inescapably painful history backburnered in favor of impressing guests?


I wrote the above screed last night, then thought it over. Was I gratuitiously bashing F&W? I don't think so; the magazine poses as a serious guide to cooking, eating, and wine information. In truth, it is Ladies Home Journal for the Rachael Ray/Sandra Lee set--quick, easy, hopelessly shallow. The product huckstering rivals any beauty mag.

I'm running back to Cook's Illustrated. I'd much rather read Christopher Kimball's weirdly literate ramblings about Vermont Country life and his magazine's critical assessment of cooking tools and techniques. You can use canned broth in a Cook's recipe, but Kimball would really rather you wouldn't. There are no ads in Cook's. No food porn. No celebs. The recipes are all lengthy, complex, and invariably wonderful.

Finally, I'd bet my bank account that Chris Kimball is eating at home on Thanksgiving.

Monday, October 16, 2006

A Discerning Eye (Continued)

Hurriedly I gulp Excedrin and Xanax, inhale sumatriptan. Nausea comes in threatening waves, which I meet with careful sips of Coke. For an awful twenty minutes or so I sit very still at the kitchen table, waiting to see which direction the headache will take. Then the meds do their blessed work and the worst of the symptoms abate. The imminent threat of vomiting passes. Apropos of nothing, a stray memory surfaces, a summer morning from adolescence. Emily and I were drinking coffee in the kitchen. Em wore a bikini top and shorts, her hair breathtakingly white blond against her tanned skin. Papa came in to make himself some tea. "Where are your schoolbooks?" He asked. "Why are you not going to school?"

"It's summer, Papa."

"There is no spring term here in America?"

Emily pulled a disgusted face. "Not in August," She said scornfully.

"Ah," Papa said. "so it is August." He resumed preparing his tea, carefully pouring hot water into the thick glass kept expressly for that purpose. He plucked a sugar cube from the sugar bowl with a tiny set of sterling tongs. I watched him making his tea in a room splashed with the sunlight of California high summer and understood something was terribly the matter. I was fourteen years old.



Sunday, October 15, 2006

New Cookbooks

New to me, that is. Pegasus and Pendragon Books sends people on buying trips to England, returning with all manner of interesting editions. I have no idea why they do this. Maybe because people like me, who are in love with unusual editions, willingly buy them.

A recent willing purchase was Jeanne Strang's Goose Fat and Garlic: Country Recipes from South-West France. This English book, originally published is 1991, is an interesting companion piece to Paula Wolfert's comprehensive The Cooking of Southwest France. Strang and her husband live on a farm in France, so Goose Fat is more of a memoir than Wolfert's book, alive with the sorts of stock French peasantry Americans fantasize about. The food is quite like Wolfert's; indeed, many recipes are nearly identical, but Strang is no cookbook writer. Hers are the sort of recipes that mention soaking the dried codfish for twenty four hours halfway through the recipe. Nonetheless the book provides excellent hisorical notes, and its chapters on mushrooms and eggs are Elizabeth Davidesque in their thoroughness.

The other cookbook is Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen. It was Bayless's recipe for roasted pork loin with tomatillos, in Corby Kummer's Slow Food, that hurdled me once and for all over my fear of pig. I also came very late to Mexican cuisine--my childhood exposure was nil--but now love it. Mexican Kitchen reminds me of All about Braising: I want to make everything in it. Chilied Tortilla Soup with Shredded Chard. Tacos of Garlicky Mexican Greens with Seared Onion and Fresh Cheese. Red Chile Rice. How can this white girl go wrong?

Authors, Cookbooks

One Good Turn evades the G word

Last week I ran out to Pegasus in my lunch hour and bought the new Kate Atkinson, One Good Turn. This spate of harcover indulgence led me to reread Case Histories, aweing me anew at Atkinson's ability to sew disparate characters into a seamless narrative.

My first reading of Case Histories impressed me enough to buy Not the End of the World and Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Neither book was as accomplished, and if we consider Scott Esposito's ideas about context and aesthetic territory, we can see Atkinson taking an enormous leap with Case Histories. I hope One Good Turn is as satisfying.

A quick comment on a recent litblog dustup--Atkinson is a great example of a genre-jumper. I do not generally read romance, westerns, self-help, any chick-lit related to shopping for Manolos, or mysteries. But writers like Atkinson, or Natsuo Kirino, author of Out, transcend labeling. They are good writers, period. That the reader cannot wait to turn the page (unless using a Sony Reader, in which case you must wait) is testimony to their talents and has nothing--nothing--to do with the G-word.

Authors, Books

A brand-new bundle of Joy

Of Cooking, that is. Devotees of this tome will be thrilled to learn that the 75th anniversary edition will appear on Halloween--just in time for the Holidays.

Jennifer Steinhauer,
in today's unedited New York Times Sunday Magazine (did the copyeditors at the NYT forget their commas on the subway?), frames her relationship to Joy as one might a fickle lover who is attempting a new, adult fidelity, going to on say:

"The new edition -- a sort of greatest hits of home cooking -- raises the interesting question of whether a cookbook covering sushi to ham loaf is relevant at a time when the cookbook industry is so fragmented by microcuisines."

In repsonse, I bring you Laurie Colwin:

"Naturally, no one, no matter how experienced in the kitchen, can manage without the Joy of Cooking....Mrs. Rombauer is to food what Dr. Spock is to babies....the range of The Joy of Cooking is amazing....The Joy's followers are like vintage-wine drinkers and have their favorite years. (Colwin's was from 1942) The recipes are clear and will never fail you."

If Joy's readers are as vintage wine aficionados, I am an alcoholic. I have three Joys: the 1997, the 1975, and the 1964. The 1975 belonged to my mother, who gave it to me when I was learning to cook. I remember reading the recipes for game as a little girl--woodchuck in particular inspired great hilarity amongst me and my siblings. The book was a fixure in the homes of my childhood and is thus doubly treasured. The 1997, also a gift from my mother, inspired astonishment at this next quote from Steinhauer's article:

"Ethan Becker (Rombauer's grandson) , oversaw this newest offering. In 1997, the last time Joy of Cooking was revised, things seemed to have gone terribly wrong. Recipes from professional food writers replaced many of the books old standards, food processors whirred a bit too much and the voice of the cookbook became subsumed. In 97 we kind of lost our way, Becker concedes."

No, no, no! I cut my teeth on the 1997. Though all three books see heavy use in my home, it is the '97's invaluable "About" sections I turn to when something new appears in my farm box. It is the '97 that explained to me how to prepare celery root, deal with rutabagas, and the differences between mustard greens. The '97 has Mildred Kroll's Chocolate Shortbread, a recipe so easy even a bad baker (i.e., me) can make it. In fact, I just copied it out and gave it to a co-worker on Friday. The 97 is what I open on a Wednesday, brain-dead and needing to do something just a bit different with the chicken.

The 64 sees the least use of the three, falling, at this point, into the cookbooks I love for historical reasons. The 64 tells me how and what Americans were eating forty-odd years ago. It also contains the crucial recipe for roasted pumpkin seeds, a savory my husband adores. Prepared only once yearly, I never remember how long to bake or what temp. Joy straightens me out in no uncertain terms.

Joy of Cooking, in all its guises, is like ballet class. All dancers, no matter how extreme their technique, must break down now and again and take a class where you stand at the barre and turn out in the five ancient positions. As you listen to the plinking piano and consider your outdated arm, rounded just so over your head, your shoulders in epaulment, you suddenly realize your spine is straighter. Your neck is a graceful stalk upon which your head nods authoritatively. Your legs are newly lissome. Class ends, you bow to the ballet master in grand reverence, pack your dance bag, and go perform Mark Morris repertory with renewed strength.

So, too, Joy. Make Sloppy Joes (page 428, 1964 edition). It is classic, delicious. Then go back to your Wolfert and your Bayless, for they are also wonderful. Consider yourself fortunate to live in this present , where all these cookbooks co-exist, not as fragmented "micocuisines," but a cornucopia of ingredients, creating a feast.

Works Cited:

Laurie Colwin: More Home Cooking. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993. 127.

Rombauer, Irma, and Marion Rombauer Becker. The Joy of Cooking. New York: Bobbs Merrill, 1964.

Rombauer, Irma and Marion Rombauer Becker. The Joy of Cooking. New York: Bobbs Merrill, 1975.

Rombauer, Irma S., Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker. The Joy of Cooking. New York: Scribner, 1997.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

On Reviewing Books

Yesterday Ed Champions’s blog led me to this commentary about book reviews.

Scott Esposito puts an interestesting call out to litbloggers, one I only partly agree with. I don’t know of any litblogger who isn’t currently tossing his/her hands up over the abysmal state of print book reviewing. We all rant about the Grey Lady, which, to paraphrase Monty Python, merely farts in our general direction. The truth is tons of people will continue looking to the NYTBR for literary information, including those of us who want to poke holes in its hoary hide.

Esposito moves on to the purpose of the book review. The good reviewer—wherever he/she appears—should convey a sense of the book; the reviwer’s opinion should be implicit in this sense. Esposito writes:

“In fact, I’d go a step further and say that reviewers should not bother making any good/bad pronouncements at all. If your book review is such that by the end of it readers can’t tell whether you endorse the book, don’t, or stand somewhere in between, then you probably wrote a bad review and need to try again.”

Initally I agreed. Since joining the litblog world, I’ve been paying more attention to what constitutes good writing about books. And while most reviews aren’t of the wholesale Kakutani—slays--Franzen variety, they are clear about stating an opinion. Janet Maslin and Liesl Schillinger both loved Special Topics in Calamity Physics. They weren’t shy about saying so. But they also told the reader why. The described plot and utilized quotes, something Esposito feels there is a dearth of in good reviewing. As a potential reader, I finished both reviews knowing Pessl wrote a good book if you like Postmodern Lit. I don’t. The book is good, Pessl is a new star on the lit horizon, I have no desire to read her. Thanks to both Maslin and Schillinger, who helped me make an informed decision.

Which leads us to the question of taste. I am not a professional book reviewer (Though I’d love to be. Email me!). This affords me the luxury of reading only those books that appeal. People who are nice enough to read my blog know my tastes and aren’t looking to me for a finely nuanced assessment of the lastest David Foster Wallace. Professional reviewers, confronted with an incredible variety of literature, must step back and read with acumen whilst suspending, to an extent, personal feeling. Let us return to the NYTBR, where Janet Maslin reviewed the latest John Grishamlast Sunday. I was appalled that Grisham made the NYTBR. “But lots of people will read that book,” My husband pointed out.

“It’s airport reading!”

“A lot of people read in airports.”

They do. And most aren’t reading Half of a Yellow Sun.

Maslin gave Grisham a good review.

Esposito’s words on context within reviews and concision of language merit inclusion in Strunk and White:

“Providing context is more than mentioning an author’s previous books...we should get a sense of what territory the author has worked previously and whether this book is a new the author has (sic) further refining and perfecting a style (and is it worth swimming in these same aesthetic seas?), or is she treading water, or has she struck out into the woods and gotten lost?”

I wish I’d read this before posting about Paint it Black. Esposito neatly scalpeled a problem I’d been chipping at with a spoon.

Esposito writes: “I like to think reviewers are talking to other reviewers, other readers, fostering an ongoing discussion of contemporary literature.” Amen, brother! One of the best things about joining the litblog world has been the discovery of fellow passionate readers. In some ways reading is such a covert activity—performed alone, increasingly marginalized. Those 800 little words allotted the print reviwer may better serve the reader by throbbing with opinion. Intelligent, contextualized, thoughtfully measured opinion—neither wholesale attacks nor the scraping and bowing reserved for the Updikes of the world.

And now, back to the books.

Authors, Books, Litblogs, Book Review

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Not in My Baltimore

I, too, read this story in the October 9th issue of the New Yorker, but was unaware of its real-life basis. What struck me, instead, were various aspects of setting I found specious. I am from poor Hector's hometown; only by dint of a transfer did I avoid attending Southfied High School, his alma mater. There is no MSU Grand Rapids campus. Nor do the estates where Hector's parents reside actually exist. Nor, at least when I lived there, were there any Hispanics, Latinos, or Mexicans. African-American, Russians, and Iraqis--called "Arabs"--constituted the diversity of my child and young adulthood.

Yes, of course, "Landfill" is a story--invented. At least, some of it was. Upon finishing it I chided myself for bridling at Oates' liberties. Feeling she "lied" about Southfield--or, by extension, Michigan--is to make one of the worst errors a reader can make, that of taking a fiction and attempting to fit it with a personal version of "truth". I am reminded of an interview I read with Anne Tyler, whose characters inhabit a fictionalized Baltimore: a reader contacted her regarding the location of a cemetary in one of her novels. Didn't Tyler know the actual cemetary existed on a certain street? "Not in my Baltimore," she replied.

Thus a satellite campus of Michigan State in Grand Rapids, thus the Campos family, hopelessly out of place in the city of my childhood. Very well.

But to take an actual event and enrobe it fiction is something else entirely. Certainly all writers borrow from life--for what is our stuff but the amazing behaviors of our fellow humans? In taking this material, we must act responsibly--turning the identifying detail into something utterly other, unrecognizable, new. For a writer as seasoned as Oates, this would appear to be little more than a morning's effort at her desk. I sincerely believe Oates intended no harm. But maybe somebody needs to tell her it's okay to slow down.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Beef Daube, concluded

Alas, Camera, I knew you were garbage before you refused to work. So Beef Daube Paula, sans illustrations.

I will begin with the armottes, which failed. The cornmeal porridge, despite eighteen-odd hours in the fridge, was too mushy to form cakes. My efforts refused to congeal, even when dumped into a pan of sizzling duck fat. After pouring off some of the fat, I dumped the contents of the Pyrex casserole into the pan, kept the porridge moving, and allowed it to heat up. It was fine as a base beneath the saucy daube. Next time I'll cook it longer, allowing more moisture to evaporate as an aid to congealing.

The daube itself was good without being stellar--it needed oomph--the parsely, perhaps, or a splash of red wine vinegar. Still, well worth making again, should I have three days to cook.

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Terror of Books

In this link, the wonderful folks at Critical Mass bring us the latest in a parade of intellects, one Mr. Alton Verm, who is calling for the banning of Fahrenheit 451. His daughter, a high school sophomore, told Dad she found it "offensive". Verm, despite not having read the book, is incensed.

Verm joins the distinguished folk of Marshall, Missouri, who want to ban graphic memiors Fun Home and Blankets.

These people scare the hell out of me. Even worse, they are allowed to vote, drive automobiles, and run for public office. Maybe they are responsible, in part, for the idiots currently holding court in the White House?

Never mind. My advice to Verm and the citizens of Marshall: don't like it? Don't read it. You still live in a free country (though not for much longer, if you keep this up). You have a choice. Go back to your Reader's Digests. Live and let live.

Beef Daube, continued

Yesterday Hockeyman and I set about preparing Paula Wolfert's Crushed Beef daube for Early September, a recipe dating back to the days before collective SUV-driving and ignoring the Kyoto protocols. Back when September meant cooler weather.

I had my ingredients from my Friday Andronico's trip at the ready. I gave Hockyman the pancetta, garlic, and shallots. "Chop," I said.

He studied the cookbook. "This doesn't look like enough pancetta," he said.

The recipe calls for a pound. I fished the cryovac wrap from the trash. I'd bought only a quarter pound.

Never go to the supermarket after a bad day at the office. I apologized, sheepish, but felt better when I saw the per-pound cost of pancetta was $20.99--eight dollars more than I'd paid for three pounds of Angus bottom round.

We batted around the idea of adding bacon or smoked bacon to the recipe but ultimately decided to go with what we had. He set to mincing the aromatics while I trimmed the meat.

The interesting thing about Wolfert is her assumption of a certain level of kitchen expertise. if you're using her book, she reasons you have things like a food processor, good cookware, and the ability to trim all the fat from a piece of beef. I can, and did, but wondered about the bit of marbling. Leave it? Try and notch it out without wrecking the slices of beef? I notched as best I could, then turned to the minimal pancetta. Paula instructs you to put the meat through a meat grinder or food processor. I have neither. My two-cup mini-chopper did the job nicely:

You are then to layer the slices of beef with a mixture of pancetta, garlic, and shallot in a 3-4 quart casserole. We have only a five quart, meaning the meat covered the bottom of the pan. The pancetta mixture went over it, along with judicious pinches of salt, pepper, my version of quarte epices--ginger, cloves, cinnamon--and pinch of sugar. The bottle of Montepulciano was opened; two cups were set boiling stovetop, then poured over the meat. I added a slced onion and thyme. The result:

The dish is to supposed to go into a 225 degree oven for six hours. Knowing my oven runs hot, I set it to 210 and slid the meat in at 1:00. The parchment paper beneath the lid meant we weren't driven insane by the smell of slow-roasting beef.

Wolfert writes:

"In the old days, this type of crushed meat stew was served with the cornmeal and flour-based fried cakes called armottes, for which I offer a recipe on pages 357-8."

Armottes are a variation on fried polenta. Basically, you make polenta--here with adding flour to the cornmeal--spread it in a flat dish to chill overnight, then slice and fry it in duck fat. Variations on the recipe call for additions of onion, garlic, butter, cream or more duck fat. I think the combination of beef, pancetta, cornmeal, and all that duck fat might cause our hearts to seize (albeit happily), so I prepared the porridge with garlic (there is never too much garlic) a bit of butter and spread it in a pyrex dish, where it awaits cutting into neat circles. Wolfert says frying the cakes while they are chilled prevents fat absoprtion. I hope she's right.

We took the dish out at 7:00 and dipped our spoons in for a quick taste. The wine had melded with the pancetta and aromatics to produce a dark, deep sauce. The quartre epices added resonance without taking over. We let it cool and refrigerated it overnight, per the recipe. The final touch is cooking for another hour at 250 degrees whilst frying the armottes. We will feed our greedy camera more batteries and give the final report tomorrow.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Prose: felicitous

Francine, that is. I just finished Reading like a Writer, a wonderful book even if you have no urge to pen anything longer than your grocery list.

Prose is a writer's writer, ably producing in numerous genres. In this latest she takes apart the mechanics of writing, beginning with words, building to sentences, dialogue, paragraphs, and concluding, aptly, with Chekov.

Though Prose employs numerous examples from other novels to make her point, it is her own writing that serves so ably. In writing a book about writing, she brings forth some terrific sentences. On reading your work aloud:

"A poet once told me he was reading a draft of a new poem aloud to himself when a thief broke into his Manhattan loft. Instantly surmising that he had entered the dwelling of a madman, the thief turned and ran without taking anything, and without harming the poet. So it may be that reading your work aloud will not only improve its quality but save your life in the process." (56)

On the individuality of each writer's paragraphing:

"...A similar flash of lightning, a similar rhythm change and shift in perspective, but now all of it has migrated....It's similar, but not the same, because as Nero Wolfe told us (in a previous quotation) paragraphing is as particular, as individual to each writer, as the fingerprint at the crime scene, as that telltale trace of DNA." (84)

Prose childes the monolith of lit crit that has wrecked the contemporary study of literature, noting her good fortune at having a high school English teacher schooled in New Criticism--reading what was written rather than into the author's background or context. She goes on to say the critical melee of Marxists, deconstructionists, and feminists, with their differing interpretations of "text", drove her out of grad school. I can relate. I nearly dropped out of my Master's program for the same reasons.

Reading Like a Writer is in general an upbeat work, but has its sobering moments--the death of Babel, her anecdote about a storyteller friend who is clearly Spalding Gray, a young writer whose interest in beautiful sentences is derided by his agent.

Prose argues the need for beautiful sentences, stating "a well-made sentence trancends time and genre." (36) Indeed, it does.

A few of my favorites sentences:

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live." Joan Didion, the White Album

"There are many ways to get to Mount Zion Cemetary." Harold Robbins, A Stone for Danny Fisher (Heartbreaking--Robbins was a great writer before he started churning out crap.)

"Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. We would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe." More than once sentence from Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast.

The book closes with a paen to Chekov, whose stories are indispensable in getting Prose through a difficult period of her life compounded by a teaching position involving an unpleasant commute. Reading Chekov on the bus, "A sense of comfort came over me, as if in in those thirty minutes I myself had been taking up in a spaceship and shown the whole world, a world full of sorrows, both different and very much like my own, and also a world full of promise." (234)

What more could we ask of literature?

Francine Prose: Reading Like a Writer. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006.

Works cited:

Joan Didion: The White Album. New York: The Noonday Press. 1979.

Ernest Hemingway: A Moveable Feast. New York: Scribners. 1964.

Harold Robbins: A Stone for Danny Fisher. New York: Pocket Books, 1952

Authors, Books, Francine Prose, Book Review

Beef Daube

"Let's cook something," Hockeyman suggested upon learning I had Monday off.

We grabbed The Cooking of Southwest France and paged through it as Hockey Night in Canada blared from the television. You know you're getting old when the rookies are the children of players you once watched.

We happened upon Crushed Beef Daube for Early September. Granted, this is October. We're gonna try it anyway. This necessitated a trip to Andronico's for 3 pounds of bottom round, a pound of pancetta, a bottle of red wine, and a shallot. Other ingredients include parsely, which I skipped, garlic, one onion stuck with a clove, a bay leaf, thyme, 1/2 teaspoon sugar, and a pinch of Quarte Epices, a spice mixture calling for cloves, white peppercorns, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. I am not a fan of sweet spice mixtures, so I'll approximate.

This dish calls for making a paste of the garlic and pancetta, then layering it between slices of the beef. You then cook this concotion in the wine for six hours, leave it to cool, and eat it the next day.

At the moment the beef is sitting in the fridge, sprinkled with salt. We're doing the actual cooking tomorrow. Photos and commentary to come.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Weekend reading

Hockeyman has Monday off. I did not, but was granted a vacation day. Low on books, I celebrated by dashing out to the library.

It's game day weekend where I work. This means all the lawns are especially manicured, all the streetlamps repaired. Not to imply the campus exists in a state of disrepair, but man, can you ever tell when the donors are coming.

The library was preparing for a catered event: the class of something or other. For some reason the kid behind the desk didn't throw me out as carts laden with sodas were rolled into the library and the studying students told to depart. I tried not to think about why Coca-cola was allowed in the library. Instead I thought about the books.

I had decided to take a risk, borrowing novels I might never otherwise read. They were free, I have nothing to lose but time, and maybe my horizons could take a little widening.


Ann Beattie's Follies.
Antonya Nelson's Some Fun (despite an incredibly boastful cover)
Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian
Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others (Am I the only person who didn't know she had a relationship with Annie

Before tackling this pile I must finish Virginie Despentes's Baise-Moi. In case your French is weak, the title, translated, is "Rape Me", and the book, banned in its native France, thus far makes Paint it Black look like Who Moved My Cheese. The story centers on Nadine, a prostitute, and Manu, a young woman living in a grim neighborhood. Both spend their waking hours seeking enough money to buy drugs and liquor. Manu also likes sex, and is indifferent to who she has it with. Self-respect or care is utterly foreign to these two. By page 75 rape, murder, and heavy drug use are the norm. The prose is flatly declarative, the sentences short. There is nothing to be happy about.

What caught my attention about this book (found used) was its being banned in France. I viewed France--perhaps naively--as being more sexually sophisticated than the U.S., though it may be the violence that got the censors going. God knows....Despentes' world is a far cry from the polished surfaces of Alison Bechdel's meticulously rendered Fun Home. At any rate, Baise-Moi definitely deserves shelf space in the Marshall Library. Maybe I'll donate them my copy.

An interesting review of the film here.

Authors, Books, Literature, Writing

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A Discerning Eye (Continued)

We walk around the block. The apartments are all jammed up against one another, postcard quaint. Strings of lights wink from windows, red, blue, yellow, green.

Neither of us speaks, but the silence is not an easy one. I cannot think of a thing to say, and am reminded of the final days with Matthew. Achingly empty meals where safe topics eluded me. Entire days without speech. Daniel shambles along beside me, oblivious, perhaps not as recovered as I'd thought.

"Richard is having a big New Year's Eve Party," Daniel says into the stillness. "I thought maybe we could go."

New Year's Eve. Such a vile night. People collecting in a freezing crush to watch a mirror ball's descent, narrated by a personage possible only in America. Too much liquor, impossible promises, hopes of crystalline fragility. All heightened by world-ending prophecies, by the stoppage of banks and telephone service and whatever else the computer geniuses of the world forgot to program. I feel far from myself, from my hard-won routine. There isn't enough space in the back of my mind for new paintings to form, paintings that need time and quiet. "I'll think about it," I say, lying, wanting to keep the peace until we are home again. I've never lied to him before.

We turn back to the house, where he stretches out on the bed and is soon asleep. The fading daylight settles around us.



Paint it Black: an unhappy review

I read Paint it Black with the increasing dread that can only come from a book you have high hopes for, staying with the narrative as it went from bad to worse, then wondering how to talk about it here.

Black is structurally similar to Oleander (its first huge problem). Where Oleander set daughter Astrid against murderous mother Ingrid, with dead lover Barry Kolker the missing male, Black gives us Josie Tyrell, at war with her dead lover’s mother, Meredith. The two women tussle over their memories of Michael Loewy, a talented, spoiled, moody young man whose indecision leads him to suicide. Ingrid is an accomplished poet; Meredith, a pianist. Astrid, though artistically talented, struggles to find herself outside her mother’s shadow. Josie, uneducated, struggles in general after Michael’s death whilst paying the (amazingly few) bills by doing art modeling and acting. Much is made of her delicate beauty, which she is indifferent to.

Los Angeles has a major role as well, as it did in Oleander. The novel is set in Los Feliz, the edges of Hollywood, places where decay snugs uneasily up against glamour.

Black starts realistically enough with Josie being informed of Michael’s suicide. From there we are taken on a gruesome visit to the coroner’s office, interlaced with memories of Josie’s and Michael’s idyllic love affair. Josie’s pain would be unbearable were it not for the extensive cursing Fitch employs to give us a sense of character. The swearing, coupled with Josie’s penchant for “ciggies” and “voddy”, specifically, “Smirny”, quickly loses its punch, becoming annoying. Josie is what was once referred to as a scrapper. Today she is merely Bakersfield White Trash, albeit with a good heart beneath her skinny chest.

Equally bothersome is Fitch’s use of metaphor. On one hand, her ability to conjure a noirish Los Angeles and the equally dark feelings of her characters is admirable:

“She remembered everything, everything...The way the light streaked the wide planks of the floor and filled the windows with trees....the long silvery eucalyptus trees that blew across the window like a girl’s hair.” (55)

But the metaphors are constant, clogging the action, until they, too, become irritants, slowing the book’s momentum. Josie can’t cross the room without frayed nerves or a tight throat or an empty chest.

Josie’s bizarre relationship with Meredith never really becomes clear. One would think Josie would want to avoid the woman who attempted strangling her at Michael’s funeral. But Josie cannot resist Meredith’s pull any more than Michael could. By page 285 the women have circled round each other like pit bulls preparing to kill one another. Meredith sets a detective on Josie’s tail; Josie, certain this a hired hit, ducks into a bar, telephoning friends frantically for help. Nobody home... except Meredith. Huh? From there the plot loses all probability. Josie is whisked to Meredith’s sumptuous home, where she sleeps in a room stuffed with the possessions Meredith stole from the cottage she shared with Michael. Meredith buys her clothing, feeds her, plans to run off on an extended, endless European tour. Josie will come along.

Except Josie won’t. I’m about to give plot away here, so quit reading if you don’t want to know what happens.

Josie will be “rescued” by the maid. It’s always the domestic help who have to clean up the shit, after all, and loyal Sofia is no exception. After fishing a drunken Josie from Meredith’s freezing swimming pool, the incensed maid announces “You fool. You are confuse.” (331) Josie is shoved into Sofia’s car and driven back home, where she decides to make a pilgrimage to the Twentynine Palms motel where Michael took his life.

I’m editing hugely—the book is 387 pages—leaving out Josie’s friends, the LA punk scene, her moviemaking adventures, scenes of family life and her year with Michael. Cut to her drive inland, in an unreliable car that in any other reality would have died roadside on Interstate Five. She finds the fateful motel, run by a seedy family of Germans with a shy daughter who offers the closing scenes. Only by then I was worn; the book is one-hundred fifty too many pages, and although I could not predict the ending, when it finally arrived, I was aggravated instead of pleased.

Second books are always difficult, particularly when they follow firsts that were blockbusters. Fitch is talented, and I am not ready to give up on her. I’d love to see her move on—to fresh characters and a believable plot. I still think she can do it.

Janet Fitch: Paint it Black. New York: Little, Brown, and Company. 2006

Authors, Books, Janet Fitch, Review

Monday, October 02, 2006

Eating the page

Like many foodies, I am a longtime subscriber to Gourmet Magazine. October 2006 bills itself "The Restaurant Issue," tackling the onerous duty of ranking America's Top Fifty Restaurants.

In what is iikely to be food gossip worldwide (maybe it already is), Alinea has bumped Chez Panisse to number two.

For those of you who do not follow food gossip, Alinea, owned by young Grant Achatz, expresses itself via "Molecular Gastronomy", a form of cooking relying heavily on fucking with the diner's head. Achatz's tasting menu includes Kobe beef with watermelon, cocoa, and red wine. Langoustines are listed with "vanilla fragrance" . Technique demands use of things more often found in science labs; presentation is all. Further investigaion of the Alinea site led me to the Crucial Detail Shop, where one can purchase the serving items found in the restaurant. The Bow, for hanging food. The Cork Presenter. The Eye (I think you serve liquids in this).

I haven't a doubt the food tastes wonderful. Mr. Achatz is clearly gifted. But this sort of cooking--in this case, a term stretched, it seems, to the limits of its definition--leaves me cold. It is cold--all about presentation, novelty, and awe. Certianly these things have their place in the dining experience, partictularly in restaruants. But I can't imagine eating peach with smoked paprika and carrot, presented on an invented replacement for a plate, and feeling satisfied in any conventional sense. Beguiled? Sure. Intimidated? Yes. Pleased? In the sense that seeing Cirque de Soleil would please me--amazing stunts I could never pull off myself, interesting to see once, all the while knowing those young, lithe contortionists were setting themselves up for an arthritic middle age.

By comparision, tonight's menu at Chez Panisse:
Monday, October 2 $50
Green bean and sweet pepper salad with sardine filet and capers
Pollo alla cacciatore: spit-roasted Hoffman Farm chicken with tomatoes,
chanterelle mushrooms, and herb noodles
Golden Delicious apple and huckleberry tart with crème fraîche ice cream

What would you rather eat tonight? What would you rather eat in a decade?

Myself, I'm sticking with Alice's Restaurant.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Another Review of Moral Disorder

David Robinson feels the same way I do about Moral Disorder. Only he says it better.

Meanwhile, the NYTBR is incredibly silent about this book. Michi? Janet? Anybody home at the old Grey Lady?

Authors, Books, Margaret Atwood, Review

The National Book Festival

I read Critical Mass this afternoon, which led me to this interivew with James Billington, Librarian of Congress.

I was unaware of the impending National Book Festival. But here is Mr. Billington telling us why books, those paper objects some of us are so insanely attached to, remain important:

"This country was put together by people who read books; we’re the only culture in the world whose institutions were formed entirely in the age of print. The Internet is wonderful, but you don’t get wisdom, judgment and selectivity on the Internet. A book is a little world of coherence, a conversation from one person to another. Books are sort of the sinews of civilization. We had 100,000 people on the Mall last year."

By now my passionate love of books should be well established. Nearly equally established are my old-fashioned (unhip) tastes in literature, and, by extension, to life in general. A recent New York Magazine article about the New York Review of Books decried the death of a certain kind of intellectual, the sort who had advanced degrees and actually worried about literature. While I cannot claim that level of education (an MA from a middling state school) or that level of intellectual reach, I certainly aspire to it, and would vastly prefer to resemble Barbara Epstein than, say, Dita Von Teese. Given the proliferation of intelligent internet, it's safe to assume there are others who feel as I do. Evidently Mr. Billington is oblivious to us. I agree that all manner of idiocy may be found on the internet. So, too, may it be found in the "little world of coherence" that is books. Consider Nicole Ritche's The truth about diamonds.

This is not a book I would call "the sinew of civilization" Not even sort of.

I could list lots of "little worlds of coherence" that aren't. But there is no point in being nasty; suffice to say that books are like the internet: each reflects society from high to low. I would place Mr. Billington on the "high" end, but given the above quote, well, all I can say is he must feel like he fits right in with the current Administration, avid readers all, whose height resides strictly in their shoe heels.

Books, Literature


The eggplant pictured was larger than some European countries.

After several weeks of cooking with farm box eggplants, I have reached the conclusion that they will never be a favorite vegetable. People always rave about their versatility. Yeah, you can do anything with them, but they’re slimy. They oxidize but you can’t really hit them with lemon. They require coddling without much payoff. Consider the artichoke, literally a thistle—you can hurt yourself while preparing it, it needs lots of lemon juice and even more time to cook, it refuses to go with wine. But the payoff! You have an excuse to eat mayonnaise or butter. Even if you are attempting virtue and leave your artichoke naked, it tastes uniquely of itself. It plays well with others, divine with chicken, lovely in pasta. Eggplant lovers make all these claims, too, but I find them unsubstantiated.

Last night’s meal was a case in point. Last summer I acquired Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of Southwest France, a fantastic cookbook. I wanted to cook everything in it, but most of the recipes call for several days planning ahead and were rather heavy for summer. But summer’s gone, and it was a weekend. I landed on Duck Leg Ragout with Green Olives and Eggplant. Aha! I thought. A way to use up the Lichensteinian monster in the fridge and eat duck.

I read out the recipe to Hockeyman as he lolled about in bed.

“It sounds very complicated,” he said.

“No. It just takes a long time.”

In the spirit of not wanting to rip off anybody, much less Paula Wolfert (I can see the kitchen witches of America banding together in a pack, their brooms pointed furiously in my direction....), her recipes are on pages 189 and 334 of Southwest. In true Bk-doesn’t- have- that -in -her -kitchen style, I deviated somewhat.

BK Ingredient list:

Four duck legs (Pekins, I think. They were small.)
Salt and pepper
I shallot
Three small tomatoes, chopped.
1 large thyme sprig
1 Bay leaf
about a half cup chicken stock
1/3 cup dry white wine

Sliced french bread, rubbed with garlic and toasted in the oven

One Recipe for Sauteed Eggplant

One enormous Italian Eggplant
Kosher salt
1 ½ tablespoons duck fat
pinch sugar
1 tsp chopped garlic
salt and pepper
½ cup olives. The original recipe calls for green, but I had only black.

About an hour before you begin cooking, peel your eggplant, cube it, and mix the kosher salt with the vegetables in a strainer. Leave it sit in your sink.

Now, your duck. Put some duck fat in a heavy skillet or your Le Creuset. Heat it, then brown the duck legs. Remove them to a plate; pour off the fat.

Add the shallot to the pot. Cook it for about five minutes, stirring, then add the tomatoes, thyme, and bay leaf. Let everything get to know one another briefly, as Fergus Henderson would say. Add the wine and stock. Bring everything to a boil. Put the duck legs back in, turn down the heat, and allow it simmer for about ninety minutes—cooking time depends on the size of your duck legs.

Notes: if, like me, you have a crummy electric oven with three working burners instead of a stainless steel Viking, temp control might prove troubling. I had difficulty moderating to a nice, low simmer stovetop, and the resulting duck flesh wasn’t as tender as I’d like. Next time I’ll put this in a 300 degree oven.

Whilst your duck cooks...

Drink some wine. Contemplate your cubed eggplant. Paula says you must rinse it, then squeeze as must moisture as possible from the cubes with your hands. Good luck.

Now heat some duck fat in a skillet. Add the eggplant. Cover.

Paula says your eggplant will brown and plump up. Mine didn’t. It collapsed sullenly, then sucked up all the duck fat. I gave up on golden browning and added the pinch of sugar, stirring the apportioned eight to ten minutes. I could have then moved the pan off the flame until the duck was done, but the eggplant so damp that I turned the burner to low and let it sit, which, as far as I could tell, neither harmed nor improved matters.

Do the dishes. Stir the duck. Poke at the eggplant. Chop up your garlic and olives. If your olives are green, you might need to soak them in water a bit to desalt them.

Test your duck. It should be fork tender, smell wonderful, and cause your cat, dog, or significant other to be hovering, making hungry noises.

Add the garlic and olives to the eggplant, then dump all into the duck pan. Let everything sit together over low heat while you toast the garlic-rubbed french bread.

Serve. Eat.

Additional notes:

Hockeyman thought the dish excellent. I would’ve liked it better without the eggplant.

We had a lot of leftover sauce. I saved the duck bones (picked clean) for broth, and made a pasta sauce with what was left. Fearing shortages of feed, I added several small tomatoes, three garlic cloves, and a healthy dose of red wine. I served this over rigatoni. We agreed it was even better the second night. I attribute this in part to the tomatoes being the dominant flavor note. Still, faced with another Lichenstenian eggplant, I would make this again.

Wolfert, Paula: The Cooking of Southwest France. New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, 2005.